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Ghost workers: The Tri-State's tight labor market is making employees disappear

Too few looking to fill jobs available
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-11 17:28:52-05

CINCINNATI — About two years ago, Michael Cooper said he lost his job a few weeks before Christmas when his boss at a private security firm told him without warning that his name simply wasn’t on the schedule.

So, when he skipped a recent job interview without notifying the prospective employer, he wasn’t exactly racked with guilt.

Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper "ghosted" a recent job interview

“Turnover wouldn’t be so high if the companies treated people better,” said Cooper, 24. “Just like that you can be gone.”

Cooper’s recent no show was part of a rising labor trend that some have dubbed “employment ghosting” to describe workers who skip work shifts or job interviews without notice.

“It seems to happen more than in the past,” said Taste of Belgium owner Jean Francois Flechet. “They know it’s a buyer’s market for employees. They know that, ‘Oh, I’m hungover today. I’m not going to show up to work and I’ll get a job somewhere else. I can start tomorrow.’”

Historically low unemployment rates are driving the trend. National unemployment hit a 49-year low in 2018, while Cincinnati’s 3.5 percent jobless rate in November tied April’s 17-year low.

Walt Tracy
Walt Tracy, co-owner, AtWork Personnel Services

“Workers are taking advantage of a market that’s turned in their favor,” said Walt Tracy, co-owner of the Blue Ash staffing agency AtWork Personnel Services. “It’s probably been part of lower wage positions for a while. What’s maybe different now is that you’re seeing it in professional positions.”

Companies are trying to discourage job ghosting with wage and benefit increases, better screening of job applicants and recruiting programs that target people who’ve been out of the work force for a variety of reasons.

What are the hottest jobs?
But those efforts only go so far in sectors of the economy where labor shortages are most acute. The Economics Center at the University of Cincinnati examined more than 20 occupational categories at WCPO’s request to identify the region’s hottest labor segments.

In the food preparation/service industry, for example, UC’s data showed there were 6.7 times more job openings in 2018 than people looking to fill those jobs. That’s more than double the average of 2.6 jobs per available worker in the other occupations studied by UC. Other lopsided sectors include health care, transportation/logistics and personal care/service occupations, a category that includes casino employees, hairdressers and personal trainers.

Hot Jobs

The employment website CareerBuilder identified three professions - pipe layers, personal-care aides and gaming dealers - as Ohio’s fastest growing. Each of them are expected increase total employment by at least 20 percent between 2018 and 2023. Home health aides and massage therapists were Kentucky’s fastest-growing jobs, rising at 21 and 18 percent, respectively.

Anecdotally, staffing agencies and employers said computer-related jobs and those in advanced manufacturing, health care and distribution are the hardest to fill these days.

The numbers on job ghosting are more difficult to discern.

Why people ghost
An August 2018 survey of 507 workers by the research firm Clutch found 41 percent who said it’s “reasonable to ghost a company during the recruitment process.” More than 70 percent said they’ve “abandoned the application process” without notifying prospective employers and 30 percent of those who have ghosted said they did it because they found another job.

Cincinnati Works
Michael Cooper works with Yolanda Hill, his Cincinnati Works job coach, to find a new job

“I think panic causes people not to communicate,” said Yolanda Hill, a professional development coach at Cincinnati Works, a Downtown nonprofit. “We try to work on that … To give them the consideration of calling may be an open door later. But doing absolutely nothing is burning a bridge. It’s ruining a relationship before it even establishes.”

Increased job openings have caused some people to find jobs they may not be prepared to handle, said Tracy, whose Blue Ash staffing agency has about 75 people working in local companies at any given time.

“As they re-enter the workforce, they sometimes confront personal challenges - childcare, transportation, addictions, work habits - that cause them to ghost,” Tracy said.

The president of the Southwest Ohio Region Workforce Investment Board said “generational attitudes toward work” are at least partly to blame for the rise in job ghosting.

“There’s no expectation in the millennial generation that they have to stay a year before moving on,” Sherry Marshall said. “They’ll work someplace for a day or two and move on.”

Jean Francois Flechet
Taste of Belgium owner Jean-Francois Flechet

Employers are also contributing to the trend. Flechet said some restaurants are asking workers to start immediately without giving a two-week notice to their current employer.

“That’s terrible,” said the Taste of Belgium owner. “We always let people work their two weeks notice. I don’t think it’s a good idea to burn bridges and I also think it’s a good idea to be respectful to other business owners.”

Fighting the ghost
Flechet is trying to keep his best employees happy with better benefits, including health care, a 401(k) and up to four weeks vacation for managers.

“We have a wellness program,” he said. “If you’re a non-smoker for example you get an extra vacation day per quarter. So, that’s a way of trying to attract the better people.”

In its Dec. 5 “Beige Book” report, the Cleveland Federal Reserve reported “widespread wage pressures” in its territory, which includes Ohio, western Pennsylvania and eastern Kentucky. Here's an excerpt:

“In every industry, contacts noted that increased competition for labor was requiring their firms to boost compensation in a variety of ways to retain workers. A number of manufacturers noted they increased wages between 0.5 percentage points and 1.0 percentage points over the rate of inflation. One construction contact reported that starting salaries for new graduates was significantly higher this year than it was last year. One transportation employer remarked that his firm preferred to use recruitment and retention bonuses rather than wage increases. One clothing retailer noted that his firm felt pressure to raise its wages as other large retailers boosted their pay. “

Prolink Staffing Services President Tony Munafo said companies could solve the problem of ghosting by adopting a “mutual interviewing process” that allows job candidates to determine whether a company is the right fit for them.

“The only way it’s going to work today is to make sure both sides are interviewing each other to make the marriage work,” he said.

Cincinnati Works job seeker Michael Cooper has similar advice for local companies, as he looks for a sales opportunity that can support his household with five children under the age of eight. It’s not just about money, Cooper said. He’s hoping to find an employer who can help him reach his potential.

“It could be something as simple as walking up to your employee and saying, ‘How’s your day going? How’s your morning going?’” he said. “Just something like that to let people know that, ‘Wow, my job really cares about me. I come in here and feel good for eight hours instead of dreading to come here.’”